Last Sunday I had supper, or tea as I more often call it, at the home of my closest friends Anna and Pete*. Not such an unusual event in ‘normal’ times, but we are all still living, and probably will be for some time, in a rather different reality than we have been used to. I know of course that home is not a safe or happy place for everyone, and I am grateful to have a comfortable flat which is at all times a space that I greatly appreciate. Yet, for me at least, one of the sometimes disheartening things about living alone is being responsible for everything, absolutely everything: the housework, the bill-paying, the repairs, the decorating and furniture choices, every meal and every cuppa.
Lockdown accentuated some these responsibilities, there being no opportunities for meals out or take-away coffees. So, I am really enjoying (and I know they are too) food sharing with Anna and Pete. We have cooked and baked for each other, swapped fruit for peanut butter, crackers for potatoes, even when we could not meet. On the days that food is delivered to my door, not having to do any meal preparation is a treat indeed.
As a single-person household, with lockdown easing I am now allowed to be in a ‘support bubble’ with my friends, and so there is more: On Sunday, after we had eaten, while watching a film and sharing our thoughts about it, my friend Pete said “Can I make you a drink Gayle?”. Bliss.
I am in my early sixties with an underlying health condition, so I have been especially cautious since mid-March and continue to be so. Last week I entered a shop, in my mask, for the first time in many weeks, and most of my groceries are still provided by a local farm shop with which I have been able to book a weekly slot. A staff member rings me at an agreed time, and walks around the store with a basket tempting me with lovely fresh produce and locally baked bread and pastries. Another friend, Heather, has collected my prescriptions for me, and brought me toilet roll. A week or so in to lockdown I woke to a note from a neighbour, Jane, who I have never met, informing me that she was going to the supermarket that evening and to get in touch if there was anything I needed. When I texted to let Jane know that I was ‘fine, thank you’, she replied to say that the offer was open any time. A few days before my first contact with the farm shop (Anna put me in touch) I finally managed to get a supermarket delivery after several attempts at the four supermarkets in the small town where I live. When I posted about this on twitter, I received a private DM message from Mathew, someone I have never met yet who I regularly engage with online, letting me know he has a friend living near me who he would ask to do a shop for me if I needed it (Mathew lives more than 200 miles away).
For me then, the last few months have been, if not always easy, marked by many kindnesses, not least in terms of food provision. But it is not just my own needs and the care that I have received that are significant. I have been increasingly and deeply concerned about food poverty over the last few years, and I have written several pieces about the response of both the political Right and Left to this issue, including letters to newspapers, blog pieces and short fiction (reference to all of these appear here http://arwenackcerebrals.blogspot.com/2018/07/)
I can attribute my own personal political sense of self to many influences. My parents who every day showed me the value of love and taught me the importance of respect for all peoples, my feminist sociological education as a non-standard higher education entrant of working class origin in my late 20s, and my second marriage to a long-time Labour party supporter are all significant. So too is my non-maternal identity, reflections on which have dominated my personal and academic life for 35 years. My father, Ron, died in 1979. My, to my knowledge, only pregnancy ended in miscarriage at 16 weeks in the mid-1980s. My husband, John, died in 2010 and my mum, Dorothy, in 2012. I have no siblings. Not long after my mum’s death I came across the work of Mary Oliver (1935 – 2019) for the first time. The last lines of her poem The Summer Day have stayed with me ever since:
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I have come to realise that one important legacy of the various losses in my life is the need to feel useful, the need to care for others, as my dearest loved ones cared and care for me (see Letherby 2015 for some further personal reflections on death and loss). Thus, my increased political activism since moving from full-time university based work to part-time freelance work in December 2014 has been motivated by my desire to work with like-minded others for a better world for all, including all of ‘our’ children.
I live in a flat with no outdoor space other than a small balcony and a shared parking area. I am lucky (so lucky) though, as I live in a Cornish seaside town and to get to the sea takes less than five minutes. A walk around the castle moat via a hill that gives a wonderful view of the docks and out to sea; a stroll past a couple of beaches, one rocky, one sandy, and on to another with it’s sand, sea, crazy golf course and pool complete with two vigilant parents and six cygnets, is a regular trip for me.
About six weeks ago I took a different route past a concrete seaside shelter, the inside of which is not visible if walkers take the slightly less scenic choice. In the shelter, tucked in the corner next to a park type bench, was a small two-person tent. David has been pitched there for nearly four months now.
A couple of days after I first met him I walked that way again, this time taking some fruit and a sandwich. A few days later I gave David the teabags and instant hot chocolate (he has a small camping stove) I used to take to my local foodbank before lockdown. I stop by for a visit with David at least twice a week now. I take fruit, salad, bread, crackers, tinned fish and portions of the pies and flans I’ve been making. More recently I have started to include novels after we had a chat about a thriller David was reading.
‘The authorities’, as David calls them, know he is there. They offered him a space indoors when the Covid-19 lockdown began. David prefers to stay outdoors. He has two sleeping bags and a couple of blankets, and the shelter is mostly protected from the wind and rain. He visits the homeless resource centre at least once a week, which is a train ride away, and if he’s not there when I visit, I tuck the carrier bag I have brought between between the low wall and his tent.
As I thank the helpful, patient and friendly staff at the farm shop and my friends for all they do for me, David likewise thanks me. But with David the gratitude is reciprocal. Unable to actively participate as fully in the voluntary work that until recently was a regular part of my week, unable to choose some tasty looking goods for the supermarket foodbank drop-off point, I need to do something. As such, I am well aware that engagement in “altruistic” behaviour is beneficial in terms of mental and physical health for the doer, the giver. I know I get as much from this particular relationship as I give, not least a new friend who is interested in me and my life. Kindness and care does indeed take many forms.
*All names except mine are pseudonyms.
Letherby, G. (2015) ‘Bathwater, babies and other losses: a personal and academic story’, Mortality: Promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 20(2): 128-144
Gayle Letherby is an Honorary Professor of Sociology at the University of Plymouth and Visiting Professor at the University of Greenwich. As a sociologist with substantive interests in reproductive and non/parental identities; gender, health and wellbeing; loss and bereavement; travel and transport mobility; and gender and identity within institutions, I have always been fascinated by research methodology, including auto/biographical, feminist and creative practices. I am also a trained civil celebrant, a volunteer and a political activist. For non-academic writing see http://arwenackcerebrals.blogspot.co.uk and https://www.abctales.com/user/gletherby